Editor’s note: This column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.
My first job out of college was teaching humanities at a Hippie School for Troubled Youth here in Ann Arbor. Soon after being hired, I attended a school mixer where the dean cornered me in the kitchen and explained that some trucks hauling radioactive waste were scheduled to cut through downtown Ann Arbor.
She suggested we go down and protest by lying down in Main Street and generally boondoggling things up and teaching those bastards a valuable lesson about hauling nuclear waste down our streets .
At the time I was lightly anti-nuke. I had been militantly opposed just a few years earlier – and even protested Fermi II in the early ‘90s, when it was in disrepair and operating with questionable regard for public safety – but had since calmed down and learned a bit more about the costs and benefits of various kinds of power generation . Nonetheless, even in my decidedly less-nukes mindset, I was still struck with how backward this protest plan seemed.
It’s no secret that Ann Arbor is a sorta foot-draggy, NIMBY kind of town . Most of us came here from somewhere else; we loved this quaint little town when we landed here in 1975, or ‘85, or ‘95, and we basically don’t want it to ever change (except for the streets getting cleaner, the stores better stocked, and the parking both cheaper and more plentiful – but for God’s sake don’t tear anything down or build anything tall to do it. Also, could you do something about those football games? So loud, and the crowds – UGH!).
The proposed anti-nuke-waste-trucks sit-in would have been a classically NIMBY maneuver: There was no discussion of eradicating nuclear energy in general, just keeping this waste from traversing our streets.
From an economic standpoint, the bulk of such NIMBY maneuvers are classic zero-sum games: The gains on one side translate to losses for someone else. Take this nuke-hauling hypothetical : If there had been nuclear waste and if we had protested it by generally bolloxing up Main Street, that wouldn’t have made the radioactive waste cease to exist; it would have simply shifted the hauling to a community with fewer resources – not just fewer resources to rouse the rabble on that day, but fewer resources to respond to an emergency if one occurred, and less mind-share to grab the national spotlight in the case of such an incident. For the sake of comparison, which story do you think is more likely to start a media scrum:
Mishandling of Radioactive Waste Contaminates Michigan Football Stadium
Concerns Over Nuclear Mishaps in Covert Township
Extra points if you know that the Covert Township in my fake headline is the name of a real township. And a special bonus if you know where it is without Google Maps. And a bonus point on top of that if you know it refers to real problems at Michigan’s Palisades facility, now rated among the nation’s worst nuclear reactors.
Sure, keeping nuclear waste trucks off your streets is textbook MBA-style risk management – i.e., offload as much risk as you can while retaining as much benefit as possible – but it’s shitty neighboring.
If I Had No Peanut Butter
In December, I was reminded of the NIMBY nuclear waste that didn’t get trucked down Main Street. WARNING: This is gonna seem very left-fieldy; just play along for about a paragraph or so and it’ll all come together. December is when Gene Marks – a white, middle-aged, well-meaning contributor to the Forbes blog – basically painted a big dumb Internet bulls-eye on himself with a very earnest, profoundly uninformed column called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” .
The Forbes blog post is very short and very earnest, but just in case you don’t want to click through and read it yourself, the nutshell is basically everything any other clueless, well-meaning, affluent white technologist would advise a child in a socio-economic situation he (the technologist) clearly cannot begin to fathom: Study hard! Buy a cheap computer! Try to get a scholarship to a private school! Build a time machine, go back to December 1997 and buy lots and lots of Apple stock!
To be fair, Marks doesn’t offer that last nugget, but he might as well. When I think about the kids to whom Gene Marks is offering his advice, I think about the kids in the school where my wife teaches. It’s a basically functional school in metro Detroit, serving the children of the faltering middle class (many black, many white, some “other”). Every weekend her school distributes backpacks to just the sort of kids Marks is talking about (not in terms of race, but in terms of socio-economic prospects). These backpacks contain food to carry those kids from Friday to Monday.
Food. Just plain, old, basic food: mac & cheese, bread, apples, tuna. Donations to support this program – which come largely from the immediate community – were down in December, so her school had to stop including peanut butter in those bags.
Again, this is a basically functional community, and these are the “poor black kids” in question, and you’re telling them: Buy a computer (?!?). You’re telling them: Somehow get yourself up to Bloomfield Hills and try to talk someone into giving you one of the handful of scholarships to Cranbrook-Kingswood or Detroit Country Day (?!?). Pardon me, Mr. Marks, but if those same kids respond by telling you to fuck off with your earnest, stupid, insulting advice, I’m just gonna have to take my Cranbrook-educated booksmarts and assert that – aside from falling prey to the sophomoric tendency to use strong words to cover weak writing – they have a valid point, sir.
Why, Maybe, There’s No Peanut Butter
Setting aside the stupid, patronizing, totally uninformed advice, the real problem with a column like “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” is that it implicitly insists that whatever the problem is, it’s that black kid’s problem. It insists that the conditions that make Detroit unlivable (or West Philly or wherever) originate in Detroit (or wherever). Isn’t that akin to believing that some big swaths of forest in northern Ukraine and southern Belarus spontaneously became dangerously radioactive, as though some occult hand smote them, independent of human influence?
Perhaps the violence, joblessness, squalor, drugs, and crime of Detroit (or wherever) did not spring spontaneously from those vacant, poisoned lots. Maybe we exported all of that from our own affluent communities (see, e.g., the drug trade; at least where I grew up in the metro area this was a business operated in Detroit, Southfield, and Oak Park – i.e., economically depressed post-industrial husks – for the benefit of Farmington Hills, Bloomfield Hills, and Birmingham).
This, then, is the dark harvest of our NIMBYism, which at its heart is a heartless, but perfectly above-board, corporate-style cost shifting: We force the weak to accept our risk while we strip the value out of their communities.
Back In MY Backyard: IMBY
Fortunately, now that the problem becomes visible, the solution is clear: Going IMBY.
Isn’t that the most ethical path? Shouldn’t we perhaps insist that the most dangerous or challenging problems stay in our backyards, where we with the clout and wherewithal are best able – and most motivated – to address them? And, oh crap, what do those solutions look like?
Is it really telling a kid who can’t afford peanut butter to go buy a computer? Is it empowering families to flee “failing” schools rather than asking all of us – those using the schools, and those of us simply benefiting from their continued existence – to maybe pony up and fix the damn things? Is it protesting the trucks and reactors even while burning the coal keeps killing asthmatics? Is it protesting the coal while the solar cells are built in China by underage workers?
Or is it suddenly protesting revisions to an emergency manager law in Michigan, even while we’ve been content for decades to let some of our Michigan cities rot from the top down? Is Detroit’s real problem whatever emergency manager might come, or the fact that the rest of us spent forty years insisting that the D wasn’t in our backyard at all?
Anyhow, radioactive toxic waste in my backyard is what I think about when our political action takes the form of protesting in front of a rich dude’s house in Ann Arbor to register our distress about a law some other rich dudes passed in Lansing to govern some way of fixing what’s wrong in Flint, Benton Harbor and Detroit – where the poor black kids can’t afford peanut butter, but sure better study hard, buy a computer, build a time machine, and stay the hell out of our backyards.
 I recognize that there are some problems with this anecdote, the first being: If you’re afraid of nuclear contamination, it sorta makes more sense to usher the trucks through your community with due haste, not waylay them for hours while a shaggy guy with a bullhorn argues with cops. (This was back before universal police militarization; when I protested at Fermi II the cops who showed up did get in fistfights with some of the more aggressive protesters. But those cops were wearing day-to-day uniforms and plain old hats, wielded no clubs or chemicals, and mostly rolled their eyes and asked what we thought we were accomplishing by blocking the delivery gates on a Sunday.)
But, more to the essence, why would anyone voluntarily haul any rig down Main Street? It’s narrow, heavily trafficked by pedestrians and possible terrorists, there is no way to avoid being snared by every damn traffic light, and you average a swift walking pace. Of course, this was all long before we entered Terror Reality (!!!), so no one was worried about suicide jihadi movie-plots, but still: From where to where would you need to haul what, in order for Main Street Ann Arbor to be the shortest path? There are only three civil reactors in Michigan: Fermi (in Monroe), Cook (near Bridgman), and the Palisades facility (near South Haven).
I believe this no-nukes educator may have been thinking about the Ford Nuclear Reactor (aka, “The Phoenix Reactor”), University of Michigan’s training reactor (which was active until 2003), but it still seems hard to believe that the Department of Energy would ever chart the shortest path from North Campus to the freeway through the most densely populated corridor in the county. (As an aside to this aside, my dad was purportedly misplaced into some sort of reactor maintenance course in the 1960s. Being an art and architecture student, he was both unqualified for and uninterested in this course of study. Being a college kid in the ‘60s, he also neglected to straighten out this scheduling error prior to the end of add/drop. According to family lore he ultimately almost caused a small meltdown. I believe he failed the course.)
 At the risk of pushing too many hot buttons and totally derailing our discussion, I have to confess that, having put together a classroom reference book on the Chernobyl disaster, I’m now hesitantly slightly pro-nuke, if only for the following grim calculus: If we have a major nuclear disaster, there may be hundreds of deaths, as well as long-term lingering health repercussions for life in the immediate geographic area. Burning coal always and annually results in tens of thousands of deaths and major health problems for those in the immediate area of normally operating facilities. This is depressing math, but it is certain. Given the choice, you definitely want a normally operating nuclear reactor in your backyard instead of any sort of hydrocarbon operation.
 “Not In My Backyard!” As in, “Yes, we badly need a new homeless shelter. I totally support a referendum, too – hold up … you wanna build it where? But my property values!”
 And hypothetical it was: No action was ever taken – heck, I couldn’t even establish if anything remotely radioactive was ever hauled down Main Street. Later I learned that the dean in question was quite possibly inebriated during our discussion, which sort of reframed everything.
 Pundits large and small consequently piled on to Marks with glee throughout the holiday season. Much of that was standard rebuttals and tear downs, but Marks also inspired some excellent – if chilling – responses. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s sticks out as the best, and legitimately qualifies as a broad-reaching must-read. If you’ve ever looked at any historical injustice and thought something like “What the hell was up with you, Germany? I would have been Righteous Among the Nations had I been there!” then you really need to take Coates’s claim to heart.
About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“. His Nebula-nominated novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available for Kindle.
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